How the housing numbers should be explained

In a letter to the Guildford Dragon Ockham resident Ben Paten speaks out

Ben Paten (pictured below), former Conservative candidate for Lovelace Ward, recently wrote a letter to the Guildford Dragon about G L Hearn and the problems of trying to understand the way the housing figures were arrived at.  These figures form the basis of the Guildford Borough Council Local Plan.

Ben Paton

“What is the most important task entrusted to Guildford Borough Council (GBC) at the moment; the task which will have the greatest impact on the environment and the quality of life of its residents?

Many people would say it was the next Local Plan. And what is the most important element of the Local Plan? The regulations state that the starting point and foundation of any Local Plan must be an assessment of housing need.

How has the council gone about assessing housing need? Has it complied with the principles it avows, openness and transparency?

The regulations state that to assess housing need the council must make a Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA). It can use its own employees and resources to prepare this or it can engage a third party. GBC chose to use a consultant called GL Hearn. GL Hearn’s first SHMA covered only the borough of Guildford.

After valid criticisms, led by Guildford Greenbelt Group, a new SHMA has been prepared drawing in the neighbouring boroughs.

The SHMA is built upon an arithmetic model which projects changes in population and other drivers of housing need. Most of the numbers in the SHMA and most of the critical judgements derive from that arithmetic model and the data and assumptions which underlie that model.

You might therefore think that councillors would have scrutinised this model and dissected and debated its data and assumptions. Since there was no evidence of any effective scrutiny of this model, since we were all in effect being told to take the numbers on trust, I put in a request to see the model, under the Freedom of Information rules, on 9 July 2014.

On 12 September 2014 I received a response attaching a spreadsheet. Someone had taken the trouble to copy all the cells of the spreadsheet as ‘values only’. In other words all the formulae from which the numbers derived were deliberately omitted.

To me this was extraordinary. Whoever copied the spreadsheet values must have had access to the underlying spreadsheet with its formulae. Yet they had gone to the trouble of deliberately omitting the formulae. So I wrote again and explained that my request expressly asked, “Please ensure that all assumptions are explicitly stated” and that the response therefore fell short of a proper answer.

In response the executive head of organisational development wrote back as follows:

“As you are aware, the model was prepared for GBC by a third party and is not held by the council. The model is the intellectual property of that third party and is commercially sensitive. They do not want to make that model publicly available. On that basis the information is exempt under the EIR [Environmental Information Regulations]…”

This seemed even more extraordinary. GBC was fulfilling a public duty, for a public purpose, using, for the most part, publicly available information. And yet it was not in possession of the model on which its conclusions depended. I explained that GL Hearn was GBC’s subcontractor and that it was presumably contractually obliged to hand over the work for which GBC had paid it.

The response that came back was that yes, GBC did indeed own the copyright to GL Hearn’s report but that I was mistaken. The model had not in fact been prepared by GL Hearn at all. It had been prepared by a small firm called Justin Gardner Consulting (JGC) for GL Hearn.

The reason for non-disclosure was apparently that JGC had ‘intellectual property’ in the model which it was not prepared to divulge to its clients GL Hearn/GBC.

This seemed to me to be ridiculous. According to its website JGC specialises in demographic analyses and integrating these into SHMAs. It has 250 public sector clients and has built models for the SHMAs of a very large proportion of all the local authorities in England. The idea that it should have some novel method of analysing demographic data which is somehow novel, patentable, and non disclosable seems to me to be ridiculous.

I therefore complained to the Information Commissioners’ Office. (Click herefor full response.)

The nub of the matter is that:

1)  The Information Commissioner has determined that “on the basis of the available evidence” GBC  has never received a copy of the Justin Gardner arithmetic model

2)  “The council has explicitly stated to the commissioner that there is no business need for the council to hold the formulae in question and that the information is not held by the consultant on the council’s behalf.”

Is this satisfactory? Can it really be said, with a straight face, that the council has “no business need” to hold the formulae in question? Does it not need the formulae to understand the model and to justify the housing need?

Or is it content, for whatever reason, to comply with an assessment that might be exaggerated because it depends on formula that have not been disclosed or understood.

It has taken care never to receive a copy of that model or to enquire into how the assumptions and formulae have been put together. The consultant in question has declined to disclose the formulae and GBC has apparently taken no steps to insist that the formulae are fully divulged to it.

Whatever hypothesis one may have for how this has come about, why would not the council insist on having full, transparent and open disclosure of the model on which its housing need assessment is based?

How can the council do its public duty if it does not obtain, disclose and debate the model and its data and assumptions? When it is known that there have been errors and distortions  in the demographic projections caused by the presence of a university in the borough, is it not essential that the assumptions are set out?

One assumes that borough councillors are elected to scrutinise important matters such as the Local Plan, the demographic projections, and the work of the council’s employees and contractors. But presumably not one councillor has been able to see the housing model – because GBC professes not to have a copy?

How can they do their jobs without seeing it? How is this possible? Is it because all the big decisions are made by the Executive?

In my three minute speech to the council in relation to the Issues and Options Paper I said, ‘Councillors have failed the public.’

The failure to scrutinise transparently the housing need figures is a good example. The failure to disclose the housing projections model is extraordinary. The reasons given for non disclosure that 1) GBC does not and has never held a copy and 2) it has no business need to hold a copy, in my opinion, beggar belief.”

To read the many comments in the Guildford Dragon click here

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